Hanson-ism: Travel isn’t about intellectual exposure

I often hear very smart and impressive people say that others (especially Americans) who don’t travel much have too narrow a view of the world. They haven’t been exposed to different perspectives because they haven’t traveled much. They focus on small difference of opinion within their own sphere while remaining ignorant of larger differences abroad.

Now, I think that there is a grain of truth to this, maybe even with the direction of causality pointing in the correct way. And I think it’s plausible that it really does affect Americans more than folks of similar means in Europe.Of course, here I would say the root cause is mostly economic rather than cultural; America’s size gives it a greater degree of self sufficiency in a way that means its citizens have fewer reasons to travel. This is similar to the fact that its much less profitable for the average American to become fluent in a second language than for a typical European (even a British). I think it’s obvious that if you could magically break up the American states into 15 separate nations, each with a different language, you’d get a complete reversal of these effects almost immediately. a   But it’s vastly overstated because of the status boost to people saying it.

The same people who claim that foreign travel is very important for intellectual exposure almost never emphasize reading foreign writing. Perhaps in the past one had to travel thousands of miles to really get exposed to the brilliant writers and artists who huddled in Parisian cafes, but this is no longer true in the age of the internet. (And maybe it hasn’t been true since the printing press.) Today, one can be exposed to vastly more—and more detailed—views by reading foreign journals, newspapers, blogs, and books.

Sure, one needs guidance in what should be read, and sure it’s difficult to summarize this guidance in an off-the-cuff bit of advice, but similar caveats are even more important for travel. Travel-enabled learning is necessarily localized in time and space, with all the corresponding biases, no matter how much you’ve gotten around. And it’s fantastically less efficient (both in time and money) to get well-rounded in travel than in reading, so even people who decide to listen to the pro-travel advice will almost always be very limited.

The Hansonian explanation is straightforwardThese explanations, as usually stated, are a bit confusing because they generally overload the traditional definition of a person doing something “in order” to accomplish a goal. The motivations for these actions should be understood as being at only a semi-conscious level. Empirically, they will respond to some influences we normally expect for a motivations, but not others. For instance, the advice will probably be more likely to be given in situations where the advice giver needs to establish dominance over the receiver (such as a new student-teacher relationship) rather than one where dominance is assured (such as a cordial parent-child relationship, i.e. not when the child is acting insubordinate) or between peers who have nothing to compete over. On the other hand, the advice giver would pass a lie-detector test which asked “are you giving this advice in good faith?” and would not outright lie when giving the advice even when the lie would be undetectable. b  : high-status people mostly recommend travel, which is expensive, as a way to show off. Their extensive travel history has almost always been financed either by their important job (academic, business, or whatever) or their high income, and so it is a difficult-to-fake signal of high status.

I can still see good reason to travel abroad to learn some things that are difficult to transcribe, such as businessmen traveling to see how local businesses really operate on a day-to-day level, or the subtle and hard-to-communicate knowledge of local social norms that can often only be acquired by living somewhere. But these cases are relatively rare and specialized; the benefit is almost certainly not worth the cost for the average young/uncultured person to whom such pro-travel advice is given. And by all means, people should strive to make relationships with others who will expand their horizons, including making foreign friends. But the meme that it is of profound intellectual importance to physically travel to a bunch of major foreign cities, see foreign historic places in person, and have superficial conversations with foreigners, is bogus.

Footnotes

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  1. Of course, here I would say the root cause is mostly economic rather than cultural; America’s size gives it a greater degree of self sufficiency in a way that means its citizens have fewer reasons to travel. This is similar to the fact that its much less profitable for the average American to become fluent in a second language than for a typical European (even a British). I think it’s obvious that if you could magically break up the American states into 15 separate nations, each with a different language, you’d get a complete reversal of these effects almost immediately.
  2. These explanations, as usually stated, are a bit confusing because they generally overload the traditional definition of a person doing something “in order” to accomplish a goal. The motivations for these actions should be understood as being at only a semi-conscious level. Empirically, they will respond to some influences we normally expect for a motivations, but not others. For instance, the advice will probably be more likely to be given in situations where the advice giver needs to establish dominance over the receiver (such as a new student-teacher relationship) rather than one where dominance is assured (such as a cordial parent-child relationship, i.e. not when the child is acting insubordinate) or between peers who have nothing to compete over. On the other hand, the advice giver would pass a lie-detector test which asked “are you giving this advice in good faith?” and would not outright lie when giving the advice even when the lie would be undetectable.
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